Clause 2 - Monitoring contact

Part of Children and Adoption Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 6:30 pm ar 14 Mawrth 2006.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children) 6:30, 14 Mawrth 2006

I certainly support my hon. Friend’s observations. Clearly, if the contact orders and the directions that are part of the Bill are to be effective, they need to be scrutinised or, as the clause puts it, monitored. One criticism is that the onus for identifying a breach of a contact order and instigating remedial action in respect of it is often on the offended non-resident parent. That parent then has to go back to the court, having taken legal advice, and will usually have to pay a court fee for a new court appearance, which costs £140 in many cases, I gather. That is aside from all the associated costs. The parent will then have to petition the court to address the breach of contact order, and for a new contact order to be granted subsequently, or for some penalty to be attached to that breach of contact.

I fear that in too many cases there is purely a renewal of the contact order on the same basis, and a threat that if the offender does it again, they will be hauled back to court, where they will be told, “Don’t do it again.” A clear problem that has been identified—we will come on to this when we discuss enforcement orders—is that breaches of contact orders are not properly penalised and the threat made about what will happen if it is breached is not followed through. That is why we need a proper scale of meaningful and appropriate penalties. We would like more details from the Minister on how exactly the system will work.

It is quite right that it should be up to the court and its officers to monitor whether the contact order has been adhered to as intended, both by the parent with custody and by the non-resident parent who enjoys the terms of the contact order with his or her children. It should be up to the court to monitor that, and that is implicit in the Bill. Given the problems to do with the resourcing of CAFCASS, to which my hon. Friend referred, I am not reassured how effective the clause will be in practice. Just how extensive will the monitoring process be, given the postcode lottery in terms of the shortage of CAFCASS workers qualified to do that monitoring and other associated activities? Just how well will the system work in practice? I fear that it will still be down to the offended party to get on to the middleman or woman—the CAFCASS officer—and point out that contact has been breached, and to say, “What are you going to do about it?” The matter will then be taken back to court.

We are imposing a level of monitoring that should have been imposed in the first place, and potentially spinning out the time between applying to go back to court and getting a resolution of a new contact order by the CAFCASS officer, with him saying, “I have to   put my monitoring processes into effect to see whether there has been a breach or not.” That will only work if the monitoring officer—presumably from CAFCASS—is genuinely proactive and resourced accordingly to ensure that the monitoring is done and acted on in a timely way, if a contact order has been breached.

As my hon. Friend said, CAFCASS officers write some 33,000 court reports a year, which takes a considerable amount of time. We are rightly seeking to turn them into detectives as well as authors of reports, but I am concerned that this is one of many new roles being added to their already fairly onerous job. Bearing in mind the freezing of CAFCASS’s budget at a time when its workload is increasing not decreasing, that must have serious implications for its ability to do its existing job, let alone the additional roles that will be placed on it by the Bill.

I should like to hear the Minister’s interpretation of how the new system will work, what the role of the monitoring officer will be in initiating action after an investigated breach of contact, how that will significantly beef up the system to act as a deterrent against a party who is minded to breach contact singularly, or on a multiple basis, and how it will speed up the process of restitution if subsequent remedial court action has to be taken as a result of that breach having been investigated.